By Carolyn Cohn
LONDON (Reuters) - Aviva shares soared to five-month highs on Thursday after the British life, motor and home insurer's new chief executive Amanda Blanc said it would reduce its focus on Asia and Europe in a strategy shift welcomed by analysts.
Blanc took over last month to become the insurance company's third chief executive in less than two years. Analysts have said the insurer is operating in too many countries and sectors, and its shares have lagged rivals.
Aviva will instead focus on Britain, Ireland and Canada, the company said.
Aviva shares rose as much as 7.5% before trimming gains to trade at 296 pence at 0902 GMT, up 4.2% and the top performer in the FTSE 100.
"We are going to shake up the organisation," Blanc told a call about Aviva's first-half results released on Thursday. She said there may be better owners in the long term for some of Aviva's Asian and European businesses.
Aviva's European operations include France, Italy and Poland. It said last year it was selling its stake in its Hong Kong business. Its other Asian operations include Singapore and a joint venture in China.
"Amanda Blanc is not taking her foot off the gas," said Joe Healey, investment research analyst at broker The Share Centre. "It's pleasing to see a prudent process in place to keep the balance sheet healthy."
Aviva posted a 12% drop in first-half operating profit to 1.2 billion pounds ($1.6 billion), though this was above expectations of 1.1 billion pounds, according to a company-supplied consensus forecast.
Aviva's performance was helped by strong results in UK annuities. The value of new business in its UK life business rose 60% to 323 million pounds, but Europe life and Asia life fell by 21% and 6% respectively, to 188 million and 90 million.
Former CEO Maurice Tulloch carried out a strategic review of the Asian businesses last year but sources said he was unable to secure a high enough price to sell Aviva's Singapore division.
Aviva also said at the time it was looking at strategic options for Vietnam and Indonesia. It has since pulled out of Indonesia.
JP Morgan analysts said management under Blanc was moving fast on strategy though it reiterated its "neutral" rating on the stock. KBW said the strategic changes were positive, reiterating its "market perform" rating.
The company set aside 165 million pounds in its general insurance business for claims related to the COVID-19 pandemic, in line with a previous estimate.
Aviva, which like several other insurers suspended its final dividend for 2019 earlier this year, said it would pay a 2019 second interim dividend of six pence and would review the final dividend, and its dividend policy later, in the year.
($1 = 0.7590 pounds)
(Reporting by Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Sinead Cruise, Jason Neely and David Clarke)